Belfast Telegraph

Can Unionists really form united front in the future?

What now for the Ulster Unionist Party as it searches for a new leader to replace Sir Reg Empey? Maurice Hayes assesses the options for the once all-powerful party

The retirement of Reg Empey as leader marks a significant turning point in the history of the modern Ulster Unionist Party. Few commentators are willing to predict the direction of further movement.

There is also the question of the nature of the relationship with David Cameron's Tory Party, which is now committed to |coalition with the Lib Dems.

The UUP, which dominated Northern Ireland politics for the whole of the 20th century and held office in Stormont unchallenged for the first 50 years of the Northern Ireland polity, shows all the signs of irreversible |decline.

The challenges for a new leader will be to reverse the trend; to breathe new life and a sense of purpose into a party that is demoralised by electoral failure; to attract back to the party (or even to the polling booth) the middle-class unionist voters who have given up politics as a bad job and retreated to the leafy suburbs; to make contact with the Protestant working class and to seize back the leadership of unionism from the DUP.

Not small tasks for anyone; they are monumental for any of those who seem to be in the running.

In fairness to Empey, he |inherited a hopeless task when he took over the reins from David Trimble.

The party was then in shock, having been virtually wiped out at the Westminster election, with only Sylvia Hermon, who was increasingly at odds with the |leadership, holding her seat.

Many argued at the time that the UUP should jump a generation and take a chance on some of the younger talent, who, while they might not have had experience of office, would have carried less baggage.

Empey was one of the old guard, associated with a leadership that had been criticised (very unfairly, it must be said) for having made the Good Friday Agreement and bringing Sinn Fein into government ahead of IRA |decommissioning.

In the event, Alan McFarlane, who was regarded by many as the sensible voice of moderate and modernising unionism, lost out to Empey, and he appears to have withdrawn from frontline |politics.

Empey led his party with dignity, if without a great deal of sparkle. He was the epitome of integrity and fair-mindedness, a businessman, totally representative of his class, with a reputation for keeping his word.

He was not, any more than Trimble, able to attract the support of the Protestant and loyalist working classes, who are also suspicious of the DUP and badly need a political focus.

This is perhaps surprising, given their joint apprenticeship to Bill Craig in Vanguard at the start of their political careers.

Empey will be missed as a voice for moderate unionism, although presumably he will retain his ministerial post, where he has been doing a solid job in very difficult economic circumstances.

Those who deplore the involvement of former extremists in government might remember that Empey was himself, along with Trimble, seen as one of the Young Turks in Vanguard who opposed direct rule, flanked Craig in his menacing rallies, fought against Sunningdale, and brought down the power-sharing Executive. It is ironic that Empey and Trimble, who contributed so signally to the achievement of the Good Friday Agreement, were leaders among those who torpedoed its prototype in Sunningdale, which was arguably a better deal for unionists.

Not for nothing did Seamus Mallon categorise the later agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners” (on both sides).

For the Ulster Unionists, the job now is to find a leader to succeed Empey. They still have the same dilemma: whether to select from the senior members of the current leadership — none of whom can be seen as particularly inspiring — or to jump a generation and select from the slim cohort of emerging talent which might be unscarred by battles with DUP and more likely to |attract apathetic voters.

This, however, can only be a short-term expedient, pending the radical realignment and consolidation of unionist political power which has been on the cards for some time.

The DUP has embraced the policies for which it derided Trimble and Empey. The attraction of the TUV seems to have dwindled.

Naomi Long (perhaps personally, rather than as Alliance) seems to have picked up some |loyalist votes.

The question is when will unionism split in order to reform and, rather more importantly, who will then lead it?

A reordering of the DUP has been inevitable since the ejection of Ian Paisley. Peter Robinson, his successor, is not yet out of trouble, having offended both wings of the party. He is, for several reasons, unlikely to be the leader of a new unionist party — indeed, change will not take place while he leads the DUP, irrespective of who gets the UUP job.

In the longer term, that position must fall to one of the younger hopefuls in either party and canny politicians would be weighing up the prospects of Arlene Foster, a defector to the DUP, but one who has deep roots in rural unionism, a good track record as a minister, and an impressive performance as First Minister while Robinson was in purdah.

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